Years from now when we think back to the early times of the decade of 2010, we will surely think of a new wave of Internet-life in which complete and total social media immersion really began, in which we started to live on the outside more like we do online. We will probably think of Instagram, and Twitter, and Facebook, all of which may be long gone at that point. We'll think of a time when people were divided between "nice" and "mean" and constantly talking about which we should be. And we'll think of the exclamation point, our dear old friend. We will. Oh, we will! This is our year, if not the decade, of the exclamation point. Why? Let us tell you why!!
Because we can't stop talking about it. Most recently, Ben Yagoda wrote "The Point of Exclamation," a piece in the New York Times in which he argues that everyone knows that "online writing begets exclamation points" (I'm not sure the matter is online so much as it is everywhere, particularly digitally) and that because we're all getting so many emails all the time, a format in which we cannot see faces or hear verbal cues, we use exclamation points to bring things back up to the normal level of face-to-face or spoken communication.
This, Yagoda says, has led to more and more exclamation points: "But what if a particular point needs to be stressed beyond where it would normally be? Well, you need to kick it up an additional notch, with another exclamation point, or three," he writes. So we're in an exclamation point spiral, but he doesn't appear to see this as a bad thing—his piece is almost reverential about the nuances one is able to attain through various punctuation tactics, including the "QEC" or Question-Exclamation Combo (not the same as the interrobang: ‽ ). "People are artists with the punctuation keys," he says.
Why an exclamation avalanche is happening now when we've been writing letters for hundreds of years in which we didn't rely upon face-to-face contact or tone or a ton of exclamation points isn't really addressed—the growing numbers are sort of generally attributed to "how we do things now" (i.e., let's blame the Internet)—but we have some additional theories about that we'll get to in a minute.
Yagoda's piece, though, is hardly the first or only word on exclamation points. In May the Atlantic Wire's Rebecca Greenfield wrote that it was time to fix "America's Email Exclamation Point Addiction!" She gave us tips for identifying the various exclamation point mistakes that can occur, insights as to why they do, and a suggestion that we all take it down a few notches, maybe only using one or none where we once used many. But I think we've too far gone. We're in a time of exclamation points and there's no going back, and Yagoda's piece stands as an example of this newfound appreciate of the art. Here's why we love the exclamation point and are likely to use it more and more and more until we grow to despise it or run out of space:
Because it's either nice (or mean). Let's attribute this to "the Internet" too, where people like things to be black or white, not the shades of grey that exist in real life. I'm not saying the Internet has made us lazy, but often the way we are used to consuming information now is in bite-sized pieces with clear opinions or slants that we know from the first few words of a headline. The exclamation point fits in that sort of realm. There's no mistaking it, it's either yelling or it's telling you something very, very nice. It's comforting, in that way.
Because we need it to separate what's important from what's only slightly important. There is too much stuff! So, just as some news organizations and people have taken to writing a word in front of more complicated headlines: SHOCKING or FUNNY or SAD or OMG to inform you of the way in which you should feel about the piece you are about to read, the exclamation point means we have an easy indicator as to what we should really read!!!, kind of read!, or not so much even consider. Is it any wonder that a proliferation of marks has followed, then? If 3 is good, 4 must be really, really great, would be the reasoning. Fortunately Twitter is only 140 characters and there is a built-in limit on how extreme exclamation marking can get. And there is a difference between two exclamation points and three. There really is.
Because contrary to popular belief, we're not running out of them. It is very, very easy to make more exclamation points. All you have to do is press the shift and the 1 keys on a keyboard, simultaneously, or if you're writing the old-fashioned way, make two slight motions with the hand holding the writing implement—a swift downstroke, and then a tiny dot. This is far easier than attempting an ellipses (3 tiny dots), a question mark (3 definitive movements, from backward C to line to tiny dot), or even a semi-colon (2 movements, though each of them takes some effort). You could fall asleep with a pen in your hand and wake up with a string of exclamation points across a page without even trying to make them. Barter those for some colons if you find you have a surplus.
Because it can be amusing. Look at the photo at left. Yes, quaff is an amusing word in itself. But consider how much more amusing the two sentences and their syntax become with the addition of the three final exclamation points. How else to detect levels of enthusiasm (see our point above), but also, how else to laugh at the relative enthusiasm of others over our quaff of coffee? Or, someone else's feelings about Abraham Lincoln's unfortunate demise, or beer, or life, or a casual greeting, or maybe even questions about knife sharpening? This is in some ways the autocorrect of punctuation—we can laugh at other's exaggerated misuses, as well as our own.
Because it is not cynical. Even if we are laughing at others' use of the exclamation point (because it's earnest, it's the most earnest of punctuation marks, really), we're also enjoying it. Unless it's calling you a jerk or some other name, the exclamation point is kind, happy, full of vim and vigor, ready to take on life. It's excited! It wants to do things! It's king (or queen) of the world! Coming off of the late 2000s, when we were all pervaded by an enormous sense of human futility and ennui, we need it.
Because it is accessible. Everyone's used an exclamation point (or mark) at least once; most of us have used them quite a lot. They're not difficult. You can add them pretty much anywhere, even to a campaign slogan! And when you do, they give a little verve to a sentence that might otherwise dull you to your core. Punctuation is free, you can put whatever you want wherever you want, and all you're going to lose is the reader's patience. Maybe, given your excitement over what you're hoping to convey, that wasn't something you cared about in the first place? Never underestimate the power of the exclamation point!!! Or these other squiggly things, for that matter: What is really wrong, I ask, with Making. Your. Punctuation ... a little—quirky? In 2020 it will be the decade of the semicolon and you guys will all miss the exclamation point a whole lot.
Inset via Flickr/Rakka.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.